Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Disciples are in a bit of a crisis. Last week they thought they had things right. They had been sitting at the feet of Jesus for three years. They had seen what he had done, what he is capable of doing, and had seen him heal and feed thousands - maybe tens of thousands – of people. And last week Peter culminates it all by saying, “You are the son of God; you are the Messiah.” But Jesus then informs them that he is going to be handed over into the hands of men, will be killed, and on the third day he will rise again. Suddenly, everything falls to pieces for the 12 and they really don’t get their feet back under them again until sometime after the resurrection. They cannot get their heads around what Jesus is saying to them; they simply don’t have the foundational experiences. The disciples love Jesus but do they trust him enough to follow him wherever he might lead them? Now the disciples will learn what discipleship is really about: not only love but also trust.
But who can blame the disciples for not understanding Jesus. What Jesus is saying is intensely difficult and confusing and they don’t have any frame of experience on which to base Jesus’ talk about death and resurrection. Post- resurrection the disciples will, finally, gain the full measure of who Jesus is and what his love for them actually means. God‘s love through Christ actually means all things are possible through Christ who saves. All things are possible because of God’s for us.
I have an image, when I read Psalm 1, particularly verse three, which says the righteous “… are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” When I close my eyes and say Psalm 1:3 over and over I see a tree standing near a riverbank and it’s hundreds, maybe thousands of years old. I remember hearing somewhere – don’t know if this is true or not - but the root system of the tree is roughly the depth or length of the tree that we see above the surface of the ground. And I love this image of the strong roots of our tree extending out and down, gathering all the nutrients from the moisture of the ground, all it needs to live from this soil fed by the water nearby and the sun doing the rest … and the tree will bear fruit and will possess this great strength because of what nourishes it, primarily from underneath, unseen by the human eye.
The tree standing by the streams of water is a truly strong metaphor for the Christian life. Our experiences, like the roots of the tree, our learning and our life with God - remember what we were talking about last week about wisdom – create a reality of who God is to us. God calls us to experience His unparalleled, overwhelming, and overflowing love for us, because then we begin to trust and hope in that love. It is through our understanding that we are unconditionally and completely loved by God – because we are his children, because we are creatures of God - that we gain the trust that we need to follow Christ wherever He may lead us.
Last week, Tracey and I watched the documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor. The film highlights that life of the Rev. Fred Rogers who created Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on PBS. But, for me, the film is ultimately about the ministry of Fred Rogers in the world. He would become an ordained Presbyterian minister but before he went to seminary he played music and helped develop a very simple children’s program for a television station in Pittsburgh.
Ultimately, he went to seminary and his ordination was geared towards evangelism on television for young people or something like that. And in the early days of television he saw a potential for TV to reach out to children in a different way. Most of the shows for children that he was seeing the late 50’s and early 60’s had a rather condescending tone toward the young, totally devoted to silly, slapstick entertainment. There was very little in children’s programming that taught little people anything. And so he wanted to develop a television program that would not only be involved in truth telling with children but would treat them like bona fide persons in the world. But, before all else, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood would express and tell children, always and over and over again that they were special and loved just because they were human. The show began at the height of the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of MLK, Jr. and RFK, and the program tackled those difficult issues with children. But I would like to think that the real ethos behind Fred Rogers’ work had everything to do with respecting the dignity of children simply because they were creatures – creations – intricately made and completely loved by a loving and generous God.
And I thought of this documentary and the wonderful ministry of Fred Rogers when Jesus takes a child and places her or him in the midst of his disciples and he says, “Anyone who welcomes one such as this child welcomes not only me but the person who sent to me.” That welcoming and honoring of a child and any innocent of the world, any of the least of these is like welcoming God himself. Jesus‘ ministry, His life and sacrifice, was a re-orienting of our lives toward God. Jesus expressed the love of God in everything that he did. There was no one, for any reason, that was outside the scope of God‘s love and Jesus doubled down on that love in everything that he said or did.
And one thing that the disciples hadn’t counted on - at least not in any meaningful way before Christ’s resurrection - was that Jesus had actually come for the salvation of the world. They could never have imagined that God’s love for humanity – sinful, broken, and I’m confused as it was and is – equated to the absolute salvation of all people. God did this not to show that he could but out of his overwhelming and complete love for us.
So, for us to really develop trust, perhaps we must first and continually wrap ourselves around the idea that God loves us for who we are; He is our beginning and our end and we are His. Trusting in God’s unconditional grace is one of the great strengths of the writers of the New Testament. Paul, who could have given over to despair through the course of his many travels, rejections, arrests, his beatings, and stonings…but it was his absolute trust and conviction that he had been transformed by the love of God and that nothing could ever take that away that sustained him.
Think about it: when we trust in a relationship we relax into it and let go of worry. It’s why our jealousy, anger and bitterness can be so destructive inside a relationship. I’ve seen that happen firsthand. When we begin to completely trust in the love of another, our fear dissolves and hope and joy through the transformative nature of love comes to the fore. So, in order to trust, we must first learn how to love.
Love can be a scary thing but with God at our backs, above us, below us, beside us, within us we can discover the uncompromising love of Jesus Christ. We learn not only to accept love through trust but learn more completely - with boldness – to share that love. And that is really who God made us to be: people who embrace and accept the benefits of the saving love of God through Jesus Christ and to share that love. From a place of foundational trust in the love of God for us and for all the world we can truly move out into the world with courage and we can live in community with confidence, and we can love our families, children, friends, coworkers and, yes even those who we consider enemies, with a love that is transformational. When we discover God’s love, we learn to hope and trust in the promises of that love which can change not only our lives but that of the people around us.